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2013-02-19

Steve Pavlina on "The Law of Least Effort" vs. hard work - which is better?

This is from Steve Pavlina's "Personal Development Insights" newsletter email #52, have a read:

Steve and I at the Morten Hake summit 2012.


The Law of Least Effort vs. Hard Work -- Which Is Better?

Perhaps you've heard of the Law of Least Effort, which states that it's best to go through life with a sense of grace, ease, and lightness and avoid struggle and suffering.

And perhaps you've also been taught that hard work really pays off and that effort is a good thing. This idea is often backed up by stories from people who pushed through major obstacles to achieve their goals. You may have also seen the blog post I shared on this topic yesterday.

Don't these ideas contradict each other? Is one of them more correct? Does each method work in some situations but not others? Let's explore this together.

What Is Effort?

Effort is exertion. It's the application of energy to get something done. In some cases this exertion may feel draining. When people think of effort, they often picture strenuous, tiring, difficult work.
Let's go a little further into this and consider the different types of effort.

First, there's physical exertion, like helping a friend move some heavy furniture, running a marathon, or having a threesome.

Second, there's mental work, like writing a book, composing a song, or starting an online business.

Third, we have emotional stress, such as summoning the courage to quit your job, going through a divorce, or having to declare bankruptcy.

And lastly, we have what could be labeled holistic or spiritual trials, where we face deep, multi-faceted changes like stepping into a new lifestyle, switching careers, or questioning the very nature of reality.

If we want to go more granular here, we could come up with further sub-categories of effort like financial effort, community effort, and so on, but I'd say these are the big four that people associate with personal effort.

Does Least Effort Mean Avoiding Work?

Is it intelligent to expect that certain tasks will get done with no effort? Will your body somehow get into athletic shape if you just sit around on the couch watching TV? Will your book write itself while you're out playing golf? Will your taxes get filed while you're not paying attention?

Some people seem to have convinced themselves that avoiding physical exertion, mental work, emotional stress, and spiritual trials is the proper application of the Law of Least Effort. At one time or another, I probably counted myself among them. But these days I don't have much respect for this approach. Try it for yourself for a few years if you want... but only if you enjoy stagnation.

That said, I actually love the Law of Least Effort. I feel it's a wise principle in general, as long as we apply it intelligently. Intelligent application doesn't include using this idea as your justification to wriggle out of doing the hard work that's required for certain results.

The truth is that there are plenty of goals that require hard work -- lots of hard work! These are often the most interesting and worthwhile goals to tackle.

The problem isn't that the goals are hard. The problem is that in addition to the necessary physical and mental effort (and perhaps some required emotional stretching as well), we're adding a hefty dose of unnecessary inner resistance to those goals -- especially in form of resistance to the process of getting there. We see the hard work ahead of us and say "Oh no, not that!"

The Law of Least Effort doesn't mean that we should avoid these types of challenges. Rather, try to see it an invitation to stop resisting the required effort in such tasks. When you stop resisting a challenge, it becomes easier because you're no longer fighting with yourself. "Least effort" means "Stop adding unnecessary resistance on top of the truly necessary work."

Necessary vs. Unnecessary Effort

When I was a kid, maybe around 9 years old, I wanted to learn how to ride a bike. I'd been riding one with training wheels for years, but each time I tried to ride it without them, I'd get scared that I'd fall and hurt myself. I couldn't balance properly. It seemed like learning to ride a bike required too much effort, too much practice, and too much stress. So I avoided doing what was necessary to develop this skill.

Then one day I discovered that my little sister was trying to learn to ride a bike. I saw that she was close to figuring it out. No way was I going to watch her pass me up and figure it out before I did! Suddenly I let go of all resistance to the challenge. I grabbed my blue and yellow banana-seated kid's bike, cast myself out in the suburban neighborhood streets, and resolved not to go back into the house until I could ride it without falling off and killing myself.

Action-wise I got on the bike without any training wheels and did the best I could. I gently pushed off from the concrete driveway and tried to balance while coasting. I accepted that I might fall and that it would probably hurt if I did. I tried to stay close to people's lawns so hopefully I might onto the soft grass if I took a spill. My first few attempts were crazed spirals of doom. I couldn't make the bike go straight and had to endure some road rash. But I kept going, fueled by raw determination, and in less than an hour, I figured out how to balance. Soon I was happily pedaling up and down the street, feeling like Tom Hanks in this 11-second clip from the movie Castaway.

What was the actual effort required to achieve this goal? It really didn't take much time. Physically it wasn't that strenuous, although it took some trial and error and the willingness to endure minor injuries. Mentally it wasn't so effortful since the process of learning to balance was mostly subconscious. Emotionally it required some courage, but once I'd resolved to do it, it was mostly fun and exhilarating, especially when I felt I was beginning to get it.

This wasn't a lot of effort, was it?

But what was the unnecessary effort that I piled on top of this? Years of delay. Holding back with utterly useless training wheels. Worrying about falling and hurting myself. Feeling like I was missing out while younger kids were out riding their bikes and having fun.

Do you see the difference between necessary effort and unnecessary effort?

It's not like I could just lie on my bed and expect to learn how to ride a bike. That would have been easy, but would it have been less effortful?

If you keep thinking about a goal and trying to get there with the easiest approach you can find, is that really the path of least effort? Or is it a path of energy-wasting self-delusion?

If you add up all the time and energy you've spent thinking about quitting your job or trying to cut corners financially, is it possible that it would have taken you less time and energy to start your own business and make it successful?

Many people walk for miles in search of an elevator to avoid climbing the staircase in front of them.

Is it possible that you've been avoiding the true path of least effort by trying to take the seemingly easier path?

What Is Ease?

Is ease the same thing as avoidance? If you avoid all difficulty and challenge, that may seem easier in the short run, but doesn't it end up becoming more difficult in the long run?

Is it easier to develop the habit of spending a little less money each day and being a little more ambitious about your career? Or is it easier to overspend and sink into debt, waste a lot of extra money on interest payments, and possibly go bankrupt or endure a foreclosure?

Is it easier to install positive health and lifestyle habits when you're young, or is it easier to drag yourself around with low energy and chaotic emotions, and then succumb to a lifestyle disease such as cancer?
Notice that the path of least effort is not the path of no effort. Usually by trying to take the path of no effort, you'll end up taking a path of much greater effort in the long run.

Some level of challenge is good and healthy for you. The path of ease is not the path of laziness. It's the path of getting stronger, so your daily challenges feel lighter.

Your biggest problem isn't the difficulty of the tasks before you. The required work is doable. If you get busy doing the required work now, you won't waste energy on unnecessary effort by piling on worry, complaining, and avoidance behavior.

Loving Physical Effort

To stop resisting physical effort, see it as exercise. It's healthy physical training. It can make you stronger and fitter.

I'm currently starting week 4 of P90X, which is a popular 13-week cross-training fitness program. It's also really challenging.

The daily workouts require some serious physical effort. But they don't require worry, procrastination, and excuses -- that would be wasted effort.

When you do the required work and drop the unnecessary work, physical training is tough but still doable. You can endure an hour of rapid breathing and sweating. You can endure collapsing onto a couch afterwards. You can endure soreness. But you don't have to endure your own fabricated inner resistance to the difficulty of the challenge.

Hard physical exertion can be very rewarding. It's nice to feel stronger in my body. It's nice to be more flexible. It's nice to record 8 reps on an exercise one week, then 12 the next week, then 20 the week after that. It's nice to know that a month from now, I'll be stronger and more flexible than I am now. It's nice to know that no matter how difficult it is, I can always do my best, and that's always enough.

It's even nice to graduate to heavier weights on various exercises, knowing that it's going to mean an even more challenging workout than the one that killed me the week before.

It's wonderful to see the clock hitting 0:00 at the end of a workout, knowing that I made it through.
Is it possible that the path of least resistance when it comes to fitness is to pick one of the toughest workouts you can do, to commit to it, and then to fall in love with the difficulty of it?

Is it harder to do difficult physical training and enjoy the results thereof? Or is it harder to avoid such training and watch your fitness decline over time? Which one is really the path of least resistance? Is it possible that "least resistance"" is an invitation to stop resisting hard work and just go do it without complaining or making excuses?

Loving Mental Effort

What's the benefit of mental effort? You get smarter and sharper.

Your brain grows through exercise just like any other part of your body. If you avoid mental effort, you can look forward to a life of progressive dullness and dim-wittedness. The avoidance of mental effort is one of the leading causes of Alzheimer's. If you work your brain, it will likely stay strong throughout your life, but if you fail to exercise it with hard challenges, it will atrophy and grow weaker. How much you exercise your brain can have a major impact on your long-term quality of life.

Tackling difficult mental work also gives you a sense of accomplishment. Your confidence rises. You enjoy some pep in your step and feel terrific. You flow through each day with passion and high energy.

I could have putzed around doing nothing today, but to me it's least effortful to get to work. Create something. Share something of value. It's good exercise for my brain. It keeps me feeling sharp and alert.

Want to feel more motivated? Then take action even when you aren't motivated. Motivation follows action. You'll feel motivated when you get into the flow of action. Not taking action is demotivating. Not taking action is harder because it leaves you feeling tired, listless, and stuck. It's easier to keep moving. Of course, taking action when you aren't motivated is hard. It takes effort. If you think that's a bad thing, i.e. something to be avoided, that's why you're stuck. Move towards effort and difficulty, not away from it, and you'll soon be back in the flow of grace, ease, and lightness. By staying still you're actually choosing the path of much greater resistance and effort. It's so much harder to watch people pass you by, achieve their goals, and leave you wallowing in the dust of long-term regret. If you can stomach that, you're a brave soul indeed!

One way people mistakenly avoid the path of least resistance is by getting stuck in analysis paralysis. Because they don't want to waste mental effort, they hesitate to get moving. Instead of actively working on a project, they think about working on it, but they don't make any meaningful progress.

What's funny is that it's actually easier to dive in and work like crazy on a project than it is to fret, fuss, delay, and worry about it. For instance, it's so much easier to quit your job and start a new business than it is to think about quitting your job and wonder about starting a new business. The former tasks can be done in a day. But people often waste years on the latter, with nothing to show for it.

When you resist hard mental work, you're wasting energy feeding that resistance. But when you let go of that unnecessary resistance and just do the required work, you'll likely find that such efforts are enjoyable and rewarding. Tackling challenges feels great!

Why avoid something just because it's hard? Instead of equating hard with avoidance, try equating hard with arousal and stimulation. When you're ready to be aroused and stimulated, hard is a good thing. ;)

Loving Emotional Effort

What about challenges that require emotional effort, such as doing something that scares you?

Again, try separating the required effort from the unnecessary effort. What may be required is a few seconds of courage. That may be all you need to get moving and build momentum.

You may not be able to control all the emotional conflict that wells up within you, but you needn't resist it either. You may endure some nervousness or fussiness about a particular social or emotional challenge, but if that's the case, then wouldn't the path of least resistance be to get through it quickly and without delay? Why endure years of anxiety and procrastination over something you can do today?

Many people avoid public speaking. They get nervous and anxious just thinking about it. And most likely if you don't have much experience, you will get nervous. There are techniques to help minimize that, but if you don't resist the nervousness, then you don't even need those techniques. Some of the best and most experienced speakers I know still get nervous before they speak. But they've learned not to resist those feelings. They just accept that they're going to feel that way. And this helps transform their nervous energy into excitement and passion when they get up and speak. And they do fabulously well.

It's okay to be scared, nervous, or worried. Those aren't feelings you have to avoid. If you stop resisting those feelings, you can begin to see them as excitement, just as a kid feels excited to go to Disneyland.

When you release your resistance to certain emotions you perceive as negative, you can invite and experience a lot of fun on the other side.

What's the path of least resistance here? Is it easier to avoid doing what scares you and always wonder "What if?" Wouldn't it be simpler to just do it right away and get it over with?

The word courage comes from the Latin word cor, which means heart. Courage is heart-centeredness. Courage is also part of the path of least resistance. When you wield courage, you stop resisting your emotions. You stop using fear, shame, guilt, and worry as excuses for not taking action. If those feelings are present, they can't stop you.

You can learn to fall in love with challenges that require emotional effort. Instead of thinking that you should avoid what you fear, see these challenges as desirable growth experiences.

It feels wonderful to face and conquer a fear. I love that I can confidently get up and speak to any audience -- and have fun doing it -- especially when I remember how much I dreaded public speaking as a kid in elementary school. I love that I've shared so much of my life online, including stories that many people would rather keep private. I love that I uncopyrighted my articles and donated them to the public domain. Working through these fears leaves me free to do more research, writing, speaking, and traveling. I don't have to waste my time and energy on unnecessary efforts like protecting my privacy, fighting online piracy, or worrying that someone on the Internet might not like me. By embracing the required effort and turning towards my fears, I can slough off the unnecessary emotional waste that would otherwise slow me down and drain my energy.

Which is easier in the long run? Face a fear now and deal with a short burst of wild emotions, or avoid it indefinitely and endure decades of regret? Which is truly the path of least effort?

Fall in Love with Hard Work

The Law of Least Effort isn't telling you to shun physical training, dodge mental challenges, and hide from all your petty fears. It's simply an invitation to stop fighting with yourself in your own mind.

At the start of some of the toughest P90X workouts, Tony Horton says to "Get your mind right." This is a reminder to focus on the task at hand. Even though the workouts are very tough, it's important that you don't psyche yourself out in advance and make excuses to quit if you want results. Put your attention on the present moment and do the immediate task or exercise to the best of your ability. Don't get hung up worrying about how difficult the challenge will be. And don't worry about the long-term results you may or may not achieve. Just do the required task. Take it one set, one rep at a time.

Tony also likes to say, "Do your best, and forget the rest." If you do your best, that's enough. And you can always do that much. With this attitude you really can't fail.

If you do your best and drop the inner resistance, you'll make gains. If you tackle physical challenges, you'll get stronger and fitter. If you tackle mental challenges, you'll get smarter and sharper. If you tackle emotional challenges, you'll become braver and happier. Is that effortful? Perhaps. But if you get your vibe right and stop resisting this type of work, you'll transform that effort into growth, joy, and fun.

Does it take effort to have fun in life? Again, perhaps it does. But when you're having fun and loving your life, will you even care about the effort? Will you even notice it? Or will you be too absorbed in the fun to fuss over how much action you had to take?

Surrender to effort. Embrace the required work. Drop the unnecessary resistance, including the fairy tale fantasy of no effort. This is the real path of least effort.

If you really get this, you may recognize that the Law of Least Effort and the Law of Hard Work are in fact the same law. They're both equally correct.


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